May 18, 2014
The Flowers of Evil: A Place Where Hercules and Christ are One
So one day when I was an undergrad at Augustana College, I found a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).
A series of poems about a man who is an alien in his own society, searching for a beauty that the people around him cannot understand. He remembers countless past lives of Arabian Nights opulence, living only for the pleasures of sight, sound, taste, and touch, surrounded by "nude, perfumed slaves."
He tells the story of four boys charting out their futures. The first longs for the theater, the second, for God, the third, for women...and the fourth, for gypsy men "with enormous black eyes" who live together and make "astonishing music."
The fourth boy is obviously gay.
Turns out that no scholars agree with my undergrad reading of Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire was a precursor of the Symbolist Movement, whose main voice, Paul Verlaine, was indeed gay. And he was a dandy, one of one of those flamboyantly feminine men who scandalized polite society in Paris and London.
No do we see any significant same-sex loves in his life. He smoked and drank heavily, wrote in taverns, patronized prostitutes, and had a series of mistresses.
Apparently my estimation of the book as a gay story was a misreading.
But that doesn't detract from its power.
See also: The Dandy and the Gay Cult; A Season in Hell